Khanty - Religion and Expressive Cultures

Religious Beliefs. The ecology movement illustrates ideological changes for new generations of Khanty struggling to reconcile or adapt ancient beliefs without entirely rejecting their traditions as "primitive." Khanty religion traditionally included reverence for spirit masters of animals, forests, and rivers. The chief intermediaries with such spirits, and with an elaborate hierarchy of gods, were shamans, religious and medical practitioners who often served as sensitive community leaders. Other Khanty could also communicate with the spirits by making appropriate reindeer or horse sacrifices. Sacrifices were performed in sacred groves that served as ecological preserves where no animals could be hunted. Kin groups, whose identities were linked with specific trees, presided over these groves. The groves featured ancestral male and female spirit images, called "idols" by Russians who held them in contempt. One of these grove-based groups was disbanded in the 1960s by Communist party leaders (who had previously thought such groups extinct).

The cosmology of the spirit world was multilayered, including eastern sky gods, earth spirits, and an underworld sometimes associated with the North. Some of the earth spirits were believed to be deceased ancestors, especially shamans. Kin identity was mirrored in spirit organization: each lineage and phratry had "totemic" animal associations. Thus the Por people, linked with the sacred bear, were forbidden to hunt or eat bear except at Por ceremonies. Most people held hares sacred. The binding of kinship with ancestors meant that spirits as well as elders became enforcers of morality and taboos. This idea, plus a belief in reincarnation, is maintained by some Khanty. Aspects of Russian Orthodoxy (Christ as the main sky god, Numi-Torm) are also merged with ancient Turkic concepts (eastern sky gods).


Ceremonies. The translation of beliefs into action became problematic in the Soviet period, when the major ritual leaders—shamans—were persecuted and all religion was discouraged as superstition; a "last" bear ceremony to serve as an initiation was recorded in the 1930s. Secularization of traditional bear ceremonies was reflected in rituals filmed in the 1970s, although many Khanty still consider the bear sacred, with all-seeing powers. In addition to the feasting and dancing that accompany appeals to the bear spirit, there were satirical plays and buffoonery, sometimes mocking Russians. Bear festivals can therefore be seen as "rituals of reversal," and are enjoying a dramatic revival. Sacrificial rituals are performed in sacred groves, but more common are small tokens of respect for spirits, such as coins, flowers, and cloth, left in the groves. Some of the groves are sites for women's worship of female fire and fertility deities. Rituals for major events in the life cycle, such as births and weddings, have declined and sometimes have been supplanted by secular rituals. Yet divination to discover a child's identity as a reincarnated ancestor is still performed very frequently. A major Ob River holiday is the midsummer Day of Fisherman, a time for drinking and carousing.

Arts, Historically, the greatest performances were part of phratry ceremonies, including dramatic masked dancers emerging from the forest and transvestite men imitating bride-capture. Shamanic séances held participants enthralled with drumming, zither playing, dancing, ventriloquism, and sleight-of-hand stunts. Folktale and legend chanting took up many winter nights; some elders still know the chants. Owned lineage songs include geographical and kinship lore that were once part of the education of young men. Women's crafts include intricate appliqué fur designs symbolizing animals and kin affiliations, on clothing and bags. Men's wood and ivory carving is both commercial and religious.

Medicine. Various shamans ministered to ill Khanty, depending on the nature of the illness and the shaman's reputation. Powerful shamans believed capable of trance during séances ( elta ) to recover lost souls were isyl'ta-ku (men) or isyl'ta-ni (women). Shamans specializing in dream interpretation to diagnose illness, ulom-verta-ni, were often women, whereas "legend-singers," arekhta-ku, were men. Séances featured journeys by shamans or helper spirits to upper and lower cosmological worlds. Helpers ranged from mosquitoes to sacred bears or even Saint Nicholas. Once intense group-oriented cathartic performances of astonishing virtuosity, shamanic séances became private and covert. Western medicine, administered in clinics and hospitals, is chosen for many illness and births. A few shamans are revered and feared by those who believe in the dangers of soul loss and offending ancestral spirits.

Death and Afterlife. Belief in multiple souls (as many as four for women and five for men) means that special precautions must be taken for their well-being during burials and memorial feasts. Whereas one of the souls, lil, can reside in ancestral images and eventually be reincarnated, others may travel skyward or become birds and evil soul-stealing spirits. The Khanty concept of heaven, adapted from Russian Orthodoxy, envisions Khanty spirits living a normal reindeer-breeding existence in one area, with Russians living in another.

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